Strategic planning is a way for organisations to set priorities and guide actions toward a common goal. Concern calls its most recent strategic plan an “evolutionary development rather than a radical shift in organisational direction”. Is this actually the case? To find out, I analysed and compared Concern’s most recent strategic plan, the organisation’s fifth, to its previous ones.
Entitled Leaving no one behind towards 2030: Tackling hunger, crises and poverty in the toughest parts of the world, the plan can be described as comprised of two parts. The first introduces Concern, and includes a letter from the CEO; a presentation of the organisation’s vision, mission, identity, and values; and a description of how and where the organisation works. The second describes the Concern’s plan for 2016 to 2020, which is broken into an overall ambition and six related strategic goals (greater impact on long term poverty; larger, faster, better humanitarian response; more influence, greater visibility and increased public engagement; growing a new generation of Concern people; building a global Concern to meet multiple challenges; and securing the financial resources to implement the plan). It is clear that the plan is written with an external audience in mind. Pictures of Concern’s beneficiaries and staff feature prominently throughout, and the plan uses the organisation’s official font and colours. The summary is available freely on Concern’s website for anyone to use. Such external design is a continuation of the last strategic plan, which was the first to include photographs and use Concern branding.
The plan is both a continuation and departure in terms of organisational focus, activities, key actors, and organisational methods of operation. For an overarching perspective, Concern’s mission, focus, and mandate are similar to previous plans. Like previous plans, the 2016-2020 plan emphasizes the need to support the extreme poor with both humanitarian and development interventions, and to continue to shift toward extreme poor contexts. The goals are also similar in focus, to the previous plan, discussing issues of development and humanitarian programming; funding; expansion; and financial resources. This plan, however, adopts a new set of values:
The values explicitly target Concern’s activities, using the phrase ‘we’, and do not single out the environment, gender, and governments but rather talk about the organisation’s aim to act with courage and commitment and to innovate. While these values are more inward looking and contain a drive that harkens back to the need to operate with “fire in the belly”, an expression that one of the founders of Concern, Aengus Finucane, used frequently, they are similar to previous values in that respect, participation, and trust are addressed in comparable ways to listening and accountability, and direct mention is made of humanitarian action in both plans.
The new Strategic Plan presents an overall programme framework, a framework that shows how the organisation’s activities align to complement the overall mission of the organisation:
Diagrammatically, the framework is similar to the organisation’s first programme framework, which was introduced in the 2011-2015 Strategy:
The the previous framework, the new framework reveals how various components of Concern’s interventions interrelate, so shows continued commitment to what Concern described in the 2011 Strategy as a need for a “more holistic approach to our work”. While frameworks share a common design, there are some key differences. A bold new ambition is injected into Concern’s impact goal, with the organisation moving from making “major and lasting improvements in the lives of the extremely poor” to “eliminating extreme poverty”. Both frameworks describe humanitarian programme impacts in similar terms, but instead of an extreme poverty impact, the new framework places a focus on hunger. This is a major shift, as it draws attention away from extreme poverty in its entirety to focus on one element of extreme poverty, hunger. Programmes also evolve: HIV/AIDS is removed as a sector and FIM (Food, Income, and Markets) is relabelled as livelihoods, the old term used within the organisation until around 2005.
Concern’s specializations also change; instead of being focused on health and hunger related issues (which have been upgraded as an impact), focus is drawn to enterprise development, urban programming, and conflict mitigation. The shift toward conflict management is particularly surprising. Concern has focused on conflict and fragile contexts previous plans, but mainly as a context to work within or around, not as a focus of interventions. This emphasis on conflict mitigation, including learning and sharing lessons from Northern Ireland, is a substantial change. While the organisation has implemented conflict management and peacebuilding programmes in a few of its countries of operation (most extensively an ongoing programme to address gang violence in the slums of Port au Prince, Haiti, that started around 2004), there has been little focus on conflict management at headquarters level. The organisation will have to change substantially to accommodate this new focus, as conflict mitigation requires a specific and unique skillset. Urban programmes is another area of ambition, but will not require a radical change but rather an adaptation and consolidation of existing tools, since Concern has a variety of urban programmes which it is working to develop lessons and expertise from. Both conflict and urban programming involve issues of governance and politics, meaning Concern may have to attract staff with these skills.
Concern’s changing focus can also be seen in analysis of the text of the plan itself. Equality related issues remain at an abstract level mainly within the values and programme framework sections, and have few specific and actionable activities. Over the last decade Concern has moved away from a political orientation and toward a more technical one. Its 2002-2005 Strategy had a major focus on rights-based approaches to the extent that the organisation aimed to adopt a rights-based framework as the basis of all of its work. Within the organisation, rights-based approaches have gradually been subsumed by equality, particularly gender equality. This plan has no mention of rights or rights-based programming, gender is only mentioned twice, and women and girls are both mentioned once. In its place, addressing risk seems to receive greater attention. Conflict and conflict mitigation is featured throughout the plan. Resilience also features heavily across the document, appearing seven times in total. Disaster risk reduction is mentioned three times. The previous plan mentioned resilience twice, disaster risk reduction once, and made no mention of conflict mitigation.
The plan makes major reference to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including a full page devoted to explaining the goals and a statement “welcoming the new commitments… in particular the pledges to end hunger and extreme poverty by 2030”. These references seem to be included to demonstrate that the organisation’s focus complements global policy commitments. While Concern has referenced global policies since its second strategic plan, which focused heavily on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it takes a different perspective in articulating itself in relation to the policies. In the second plan, the MDGs were described as providing a “rights-based framework” for Concern to adopt to give coherence to its programmes. In this strategic plan, SDGs were discussed not as a driver of Concern’s work but instead an affirmation that Concern’s work complemented global processes, presenting Concern as a leader rather than a follower of broader policy initiatives. The lack of mention on the World Humanitarian Summit within the plan was surprising given the organisation’s extensive involvement in the Summit and the fact that previous plans often referenced numerous policy processes, not just one.
Concern’s relationship with external actors also shows some changes. The extreme poor, the government, and local civil society are prominent in this plan, as they have been from the second plan onward. The plan also has a focus on research and innovation, and includes the need to engage and work with researchers. Research and innovation has been a key theme within the organisation since the 2006-2010 plan, which introduced the “3 ‘I’s of innovation, influence, and impact”. Unlike the last few plans, this plan has major focus on the private sector and the Irish population, identifying the private sector as a “new actor” to work with in both development and humanitarian spheres and the Irish public as critical to engage with and influence. The last plan to heavily reference either the private sector or the Irish population was Concern’s first strategic plan, the 1997-2002 Strategic Plan. The 1997 Plan talked about learning from the private sector and adapting its methods (including strategic planning), and frequently compared Concern and the humanitarian sector to private companies and the private sector. This framed the private sector as external to the international aid system, which is different from the current plan which views the private sector as a new and integral actor within the aid system itself. The Irish population, however, was much more integral to Concern’s international aid endeavour in the first plan, and volunteers were described as playing critical roles in the delivery of aid overseas. This plan describes the need for “public engagement” as part of an advocacy agenda and agenda to attract support to the organisation, suggesting a view of the public as outside the aid system and Concern’s immediate work.
Out of all the areas that the new plan discusses, the most changes seem to occur within the organisational governance structure itself, with key focus on organisational devolution, human resource building, and staff responsibility. A major change is the need to “devolve authority and responsibility closer to centres of opportunity and relevance”. This is a radical shift: in the past, although Concern had focused on building the capacity of foreign staff and moving them up the ranks within the organisation, it was also trying to centralise its governance at headquarters level, as seen in the large number of policies and strategies it had developed over the years since it first started the strategic planning process. (The 2006-2010 Strategy stated Concern developed 20 policies and guidelines since 2001. These are in addition to the innumerable guidance and procedure papers developed over the past decade.) A focus on devolution suggests a move away from headquarters control and a giving up of heavy policy use. Human resources are also mentioned, specifically within the strategic goal of “growing a new generation of Concern people”, within which the need to “develop leaders with very specific skill sets” is noted. More broadly, this plan frames staff as a position of incredible responsibility: the plan describes Concern as a “people-to-people” organisation, delivering the plan necessitates having “the right people”, and organisational values focus on drive and commitment. Taken together, these shifts suggest a movement away from proscriptive centralized bureaucratic organisation to a facilitative organisation that acknowledges that it does not have complete control over all outcomes, but must rather rely on and guide human and interpersonal interactions. In many ways this is a return to the governance approach Concern utilised up until its first strategic plan, which started the trend of trying to centrally and rationally manage its processes within the organisation. Devolution and human-scale decision-making are good strategies for operating under conditions of complexity, difference, and uncertainty, since they allow for decisions to be made at local context. They also match current broader policy processes, most notably the World Humanitarian Summit calls for localization, and ideas of resilience, which understands the world from a perspective of complexity.
So does this strategic plan represent an evolutionary change or is it a radical shift in Concern’s direction? Both categorisations can be appropriate. Evolution describes the slow set of changes in reaction to developments within a broader system. These changes can combine to cause radical transformations, including the decline of certain species (HIV/AIDs) and the development of others (conflict management), and the progression of an ecosystem (from centralized bureaucratic structure to a devolved human one). Concern is evolving, changing what it is focusing on and how it operates. The removal of HIV/AIDs, the shift from a broad focus on extreme poverty toward hunger, the additional focus on conflict management and urban programming, the inclusion of the private sector within the aid system, and the increasing responsibility of local staff in decision-making, are all major evolutions in the way that Concern operates, and all occur while the organisation maintains its focus on extreme poverty and emergency response. Its shift from eliminating rather than addressing extreme poverty and its updated values that articulate drive suggest Concern is bolder and more committed to addressing extreme poverty and emergency response. Indeed, Concern has been able to articulate such changes positively as contributing to eliminating extreme poverty, with perhaps the exception of the greater focus on hunger within its development work, as poverty is more than just hunger. The plan can therefore be viewed as instilling a stronger and more passionate focus within the organisation. From a practical perspective, however, the plan’s changes seem like the might present challenges. The plan requires more programming activities in more diverse contexts with more localized decision-making. This has the potential to place a large burden on staff, whom are often already saddled with large responsibilities. Fortunately, the Concern staff I’ve met tend have that “fire in the belly” described by Aengus Finucane, meaning that such an additional burden might be appreciated if it comes with greater decision-making and ability to improve the lives of the extreme poor. Hopefully the new plan will help Concern nurture this fire and realise its goal of eliminating extreme poverty.
You can learn more about Concern here.